Contempt for vocational study is led by the well-to-do, administrators hear

The chair of the University of Sussex's council has issued a staunch defence of courses derided as "Mickey Mouse" degrees.

December 8, 2011

Simon Fanshawe argued that the skills-focused degrees characterised by some sections of the media as "basket weaving and golf-course management" can be "bloody difficult".

Giving the Association of University Administrators' annual lecture in London last week, he argued that an erroneous notion had taken root that widening participation inevitably led to a drop in standards.

"Curiously now, 52 per cent of people in the country think that too many students go to university," he said. "Is that the almost 50 per cent of people whose kids don't go? No it's not, interestingly."

Mr Fanshawe, a broadcaster, writer and founding member of gay rights organisation Stonewall, said that a disproportionate number of this group of naysayers were from the most privileged social classes.

"What's this about? What it's about is that we have allowed ourselves to accept the Daily Mail view that when you widen participation, when more kids go to university, inevitably standards drop," he argued.

He said that despite the derision directed at "Mickey Mouse" courses, "actually, being a great basket weaver, or managing a golf course well, is bloody difficult. And when we teach it, we teach it to very high standards when we do it well."

But he noted that the UK was "still falling behind in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] league", adding that the country had dropped from third to 15th place in the proportion of people going to university.

He cited a 2010 YouGov opinion poll in which 52 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement "too many students are going to university now and it's devaluing degrees". Within that total, 57 per cent of those in top ABC1 social groups agreed, compared with 47 per cent from the less affluent C2DE groups.

Mr Fanshawe attacked the government's higher education reforms as "wonky, uneven, in many respects badly delivered and certainly very badly advocated in the public space".

He said he doubted that allowing universities unlimited recruitment of students achieving AAB grades or better at A level would improve quality because "what drives our [Sussex's] ability to deliver high standards is not the cleverness of our students but our commitment to delivering high standards".

He added that Russell Group universities would not compete for AAB students because "they're not interested, they don't want more students, they can't cope with more students, [and] they've got capacity problems already".

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